PA Capitol & COVID-19 Report: 13 More Counties Move To Yellow Phase; Conflicts Escalate Between Republicans, Governor
Just after Gov. Wolf announced 13 more counties would be moving to the Yellow Phase of reopening on Friday and releasing the related business guidance, lawmakers and county officials were showing signs of what one media outlet called a “mutiny” against his shutdown order.
Local officials in Beaver, Dauphin and Lebanon counties, left out of the first 37 counties moving to the Yellow Phase, announced they would be moving to Yellow on their own.
Republican Dauphin County Board Chair Jeff Haste wrote an open letter to the public saying “This decision has ruined the livelihood of millions of hard-working Pennsylvanians in exchange for 0.4 percent [54,238] of our population [sick with COVID-19]”… and “0.028 percent [of the state’s population — 3,616] deaths.”
The letter continued… “I have great sympathy for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. I also have great concern for the families that now have to struggle with financial concerns, mental health stress, addiction, and more because of the shutdown. Again our governor has pitted groups of Pennsylvanians against one another.”
“For centuries, our people and businesses have shown they can adapt to changes to survive and prosper. They cannot, however, do a thing when a dictator and an unelected secretary place them in lockdown.” Read more here.
Separately, four Republican Senators offered their support for another federal lawsuit by local officials in Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties [later moved to Yellow Phase] challenging the legality of the Governor’s shutdown order, even though the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a similar case the prior week.
Senate and House lawmakers and local officials, primarily Republican, have written letters calling on Gov. Wolf to reopen their counties, including Cumberland, Huntingdon, Juniata, Mifflin, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton, Perry, Schuylkill and others. Read requests here.
House Republican leadership issued a statement Friday calling for a general lifting of shutdown restrictions. Read more here.
And in a new low for political discourse, Republican conservative Rep. Cris Dush (R-Jefferson) compared the Wolf Administration’s policies for handling the COVID-19 pandemic to the “socialist playbook” used by Nazis, and Communists in the old USSR. Read more here.
He later tried to, almost, apologize for the uproar his remarks caused. Read more here.
Wolf spokesperson Lindsay Kensinger responded to the statement urging more cooperation from lawmakers.
“In the last few days, House Republicans have shared fake reopening plans online and a rank and file member has compared the Administration to Nazis, while Republican members have spent time moving legislation to reopen zoos during a global pandemic and rallied with activists who have made threats against the governor,” she said. “We badly need partners in the Legislature who will take the challenge before them seriously instead of using it to divide the commonwealth.”
For his part, Gov. Wolf said, “The reopening plan prioritizes the health and welfare of Pennsylvanians by using a combination of factors to gauge how much movement a location can tolerate before the 2019 novel coronavirus becomes a threat.”
In an op-ed Friday, Gov. Wolf thanked Pennsylvanians for doing the hard things everyone needed to do to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic–
“The past two months have been hard for all of us. The 2019 novel coronavirus upended our lives, and we have had to make one difficult decision after another.
“We’ve canceled gatherings. We’ve stopped visiting loved ones in nursing homes. We’ve worn masks. And we’ve stayed home.
“To the relief of everyone, we now know our actions are working. Our infection rate has flattened and is now showing signs of decline. And our hospitals have not been overwhelmed.
“We are now transitioning to the next phase of our fight, one where we will work toward reopening many businesses and activities while continuing to practice social distancing. I want Pennsylvanians to be able to shop for the things they want, to resume working, to go where they want and do what they want. But if we want to prevent a resurgence, if we want to continue to be safe, then we need to continue to take precautions.
“As we begin to rollout re-openings, I ask that you continue to do your part to stop the spread of COVID-19. Wearing a mask, washing our hands, or choosing to skip a trip to the store may seem like small acts, but they will help us keep the barrier we’ve built against COVID-19 strong until we can find a vaccine or a cure.
“A pandemic brings many reasons to be fearful. But COVID-19 has also brought out so much goodness.
“Thank you for doing your part. You have made me prouder than I’ve ever been before to be the leader of this great Commonwealth.
“Let’s continue to work together to ward off COVID-19 and show the world what Pennsylvanians can accomplish.”
How Businesses Feel?
For their part, there have been multiple reports in the media about businesses proceeding with caution as they begin to reopen. Read more here.
Other business owners worry about the ability to bounce back and about whether customers will return to them. Read more here.
In other areas allowed to reopen, some businesses feel “normal” will be a long way off. Read more here.
Employees in the warehouse industry, nurses and others have expressed concerns about working conditions at their places of business. Some employees concerned about COVID-19 are asking “My employer called me back to work, do I have to return?”
At a May 4 hearing by the Senate Local Government Committee on issues surrounding the reopening of Pennsylvania, Lisa Schaefer, Executive Director of the County Commissioners Association of PA said in written testimony before the Committee, “We have to stop creating solutions for counties. We must start creating solutions with counties.”
“Our Association has not taken a position on the Governor’s plan to reopen Pennsylvania, nor any other proposed plan that has been offered in recent weeks.
“Our position, on behalf of our 67 counties, is simply this – a comprehensive, collaborative process must be developed that brings counties, the legislature and the administration to the table to collectively determine what is best for the health, safety and economy of the residents of the commonwealth.
“This is about protecting the health and safety of our residents. It is about trying to create a new normal for our communities. It is about economic recovery and keeping the safety net intact for citizens who are scared and lonely and in need of our help.
“It is not about political differences and it is not about whether one level of government or one branch of government is right or wrong or should get credit for having the answers.
“It shouldn’t be a matter of us versus them, and counties shouldn’t be caught in the middle. It should be about us, all of us, versus this virus.”
Click Here to watch a video of the hearing and for available written testimony.
Business Shutdown Waivers
On May 9, Gov. Wolf released a list of businesses approved to receive exemptions from the general shutdown order on a county by county basis. Of the nearly 43,000 requests received, just over 6,100 were approved, 11,635 were told they needed no waiver and 12,826 were denied. The waiver program operated from March 19 to April 3. Read more here.
The information was in response to a Senate subpoena for documents on the program, although Gov. Wolf took pains to “reject” the subpoena supported by Republican lawmakers saying the information released “should be sufficient to address your committee’s concerns.” Read more here.
Senate Republican leadership said Friday they were “weighing options” on what they said was Gov. Wolf’s failure to comply with the subpoena. Read more here.
On a second front, the Senate and House are squabbling with Gov. Wolf over legislation– House Bill 2463 (Grove-R-York)– to reopen and restart the Right-To-Know law process for requesting public information from state and other public agencies.
The Wolf Administration has said it does not support the bill.
“I’m trying to be transparent, and we’re focused on doing everything we can to keep people informed as to how we’re doing,” Gov. Wolf said. “I draw a distinction between transparency and following specific rules for things that are mandated that we might not have the capacity to do while we’re in this emergency.” Read more here.
Nursing Home Challenges
On May 7, two Senate Committee held a hearing on the challenges facing nursing homes during the COVID-19. As of May 9, 2,518 residents of nursing homes have died of the virus out of the total death toll in Pennsylvania of 3,688– just over two-thirds. Read more here.
Witnesses pointed to a variety of issues, including the need for more Personal Protective Equipment, more testing, increases in insurance premiums, the challenges of attracting and retaining staff and the fact the state has not increased nursing home assistance for the last six years.
Click Here to watch a video of the hearing and for available written testimony.
Meanwhile, Spotlight PA reported Saturday Pennsylvania had an early plan to protect nursing homes from the virus, but never fully implemented it. Read more here.
Another developing issue deals with group homes for the intellectually disabled whose workers are warning the state that without hazard pay for direct-care workers or similar financial assistance, these homes face financial ruin. Read more here.
Group homes have been the preferred care facilities for intellectually disabled and have been another point of friction with the General Assembly as the Governor proposed to continued closing the state-owned care facilities for this population last year.
Liquor Stores Reopening
During a May 6 Senate Committee hearing, Republicans were critical of the Liquor Control Board for closing state stores without an official action of the Board or by the Governor saying the action to close the stores had a significant impact on taxpayers and customers.
This is another in a series of concerns Republicans have with the LCB, many of whom have spearheaded efforts to privatize their operations.
Click Here to watch a video of the hearing and for available testimony.
Meanwhile, state liquor stores in Yellow Phase counties are reopening, using the appropriate social distancing measures, with some having lines out the door. Read more here.
In an issue unrelated to COVID-19, two restaurateurs have filed a proposed class action lawsuit against the Liquor Control Board for improperly collecting millions of dollars in fees from restaurants for the last three years when they blocked them from obtaining wines directly from distributors. Read more here.
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 2,444 on May 3 to 3,707 on May 10. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 49,165 on May 3 to 56,611 on May 10.
State vital statistics records have recorded a 20 percent increase in deaths in Pennsylvania between January and April of this year. Deaths increased by about 2,790 compared to 2019. The increase in deaths represents about 500 more fatalities than the official count attributed to COVID-19. Read more here.
The AP reported Saturday, Member of Congress Madeleine Dean (D-PA) from Montgomery County lost her mother-in-law to COVID-19.
As of May 7, a total of 1,793,217 Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment since March 15, the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. That number is up 121,550 from May 1.
Pennsylvania unemployment numbers for April may be released as early as May 15 by the Department of Labor and Industry which will show more of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a May 5 Senate committee hearing on continuing problems with the state’s overwhelmed unemployment compensation system, Republicans outlined failures to properly manage the system going back to the Corbett Administration.
Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said over the past 20 years, the previous record for initial claims was in 2009 with just over 960,000 over 52 weeks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been over 1.9 million claims filed– nearly 1.8 million standard claims and 140,000 gig or self-employed workers.
As of May 4, the Department of Labor and Industry has paid out out more than $5.34 billion in unemployment compensation since March 15.
Click Here to watch a video of the hearing and for available written testimony.
After the hearing, Sen. John DiSanto (R-Cumberland) called for the resignation of Secretary Oleksiak over the failures of the unemployment system to handle nearly 1.8 million applicants in 53 days. Secretary Oleksiak was President of PSEA, the teacher’s union, which Republicans generally don’t like anyway.
Other COVID-19 Actions
Several other actions related to the COVID-19 pandemic taken last week included–
PennDOT Revenue Down 30%
PennDOT reported last week its April tax revenue was down 30 percent– $90 million- putting a big dent in its road maintenance budget. Read more here.
PennDOT officials said they were hopeful Congress would approve COVID-19 relief funding of between $700 and $800 million yet this fiscal year and another $1.3 billion next fiscal year. Read more here.
College Aid Applications Drop
There has been a sharp drop in applications for college financial aid, prompted by the uncertainties surrounding the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on colleges and other educational institutions.
PHEAA, the state education financing agency, is urging students to apply for assistance and has extended its deadline for applications to May 15. Read more here.
Vote By Mail Attracts Nearly 1 Million
Gov. Wolf has been pushing the state’s mail-in ballot option, reporting nearly 1 million state voters have applied for vote-by-mail for the June 2 Primary. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is May 26. Read more here.
While Gov. Wolf has said the state is working to make sure however voters want to vote are safe, county poll workers are again expressing concerns about their safety and staffing levels for the June Primary. Read more here.
On a related front, state and national Republicans are challenging attempts by nonprofit groups to extend the deadline for requesting mail-in ballots for the November election. Read more here.
A conservative activist group has also filed a lawsuit challenging Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties to purge their voter rolls of what they call inactive voters. The counties say the lawsuit makes a variety of false claims. Read more here.
Who would’ve guessed Pennsylvania would be so popular? Wonder why?
A new Harper Poll of Pennsylvania voters released May 4 has former Vice President Joe Biden beating President Donald Trump 49 to 43 percent in the state. Biden holds a double digit lead among voters who said they are facing a negative financial impact from COVID-19– 54 to 39 percent. Read more here.
A Real Clear Politics average of polls from March 6 to April 26 had Biden leading Trump in Pennsylvania by 6.5 points. Read more here.
Two-thirds of those polled said the pandemic had negatively impacted their finances with 56 percent saying the economy will recover after the end of 2020, but most said in two years. Read more here.
Side note, a Trump campaign official said his reelection campaign machine was like the Death Star, an unfortunate reference for Star Wars fans.
It’s a very long way until November.
Russell Crowe – Tax Deadbeat?
The Department of Revenue says actor Russell Crowe owes $130 million in back taxes to the state, according to papers filed in a California court last week.
A tax lien filed last year said Crowe personally owes more than $100,000 in personal income tax. Read more here.
Crowe was paid $5.6 million to make a movie in Pennsylvania as part of the Film Production Tax Credit Program in 2014.
A report by the Independent Fiscal Office last year found the Film Tax Credit Program reward big-budget productions with highly paid actors and much of the economic benefits flows out of the state to non-resident labor. Read more here.
Senate Friday just added May 11, 12 and 13 to their voting session and have so far scheduled committee hearings on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the “continuity of education” and transportation-related funding issues that includes PennDOT and the Turnpike.
While the House is not in voting session until May 18, 19 and 20, there is an informational meeting scheduled on the effects of COVID-19 on state veterans homes– which has been severe– and the PA National Guard.
Both the House and Senate are still operating under remote voting rules that limit debate and public access to legislators.
Still no word on how Senate and House leaders will use the $172 million surplus in their operating accounts to benefit taxpayers.